Incidents of Mirror Travel, flooded landscapes. Kelly Starling

Part One. Image Gallery, click

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Part Two. Text.

It's a season all its own, when the river rises. Things get twisted into new and unfamiliar shapes as the streets fill with strange contingencies. I head out of town. Head for the strips of thin land alongside the river. It’s peaceful here. Everyone is busy elsewhere. Rumours of flood affairs and reckless entanglements are piled on pavements; grave goods. It starts to feel like everything’s been emptied out, picked over. Even the best intentions are held up to the light; shadows cast. January’s always a tricky time in the valley. 

 

The river’s a constant presence, deafening. It dips below bridges, appears on my right as I cross the park, then dips back to the left as it trades places with the canal. Road, railway, and canal almost touch one another in the narrowing space of the valley; parallel velocities in different time zones. Swollen and relentless, the river batters its course eastward, regardless.

 

A stench clings to the landscape; drainage, sewage, things brought to the surface. Infrastructures haunted by the sound of water; moving, dripping, trickling, gushing from surface and conduit. Each drop a glinting fragment, flickers, finds its way. 

 

The canal’s different. A static silence. Its reflective surface appears solid. Edges sealed, machined, like a satin ribbon. Unfurled, it cuts through zones of reclamation, repackaged as retail and residential. Derelict mills still occupy the unclaimed parts while others remain hidden, accidentally overlooked. 

 

There's a place. Beyond the train station. A scrappy wood where the river passes between steep embankment and canal. It’s a cut-through, used by runners, stained by dog walkers and kids from the secondary school. A place where amenity footpaths are cordoned off from the river by wooden fencing. I climb down to the water, in places. Not today. Not when the river hurls itself forward, carrying all this debris; a collection of things unfixed, uprooted. 

 

Today, this landscape hovers in mid-transformation. A happening went, unwitnessed. No-one was here, in this place, to see the river break its banks, watch it rise three meters up the steep incline of the railway embankment. But I see that moment now, sketched in objects, marks on the ground. A tide line of things; evidence of a thousand exchanges. A one-sided notice of what was left, with no record of what was taken. 

 

Zones begin to emerge; sites, on the embankment, by the water’s edge, in the scrappy woods. Something happened here. It’s still here, waiting, transgressive, unfinished. Every site on this side of the river has a ritual feel to it. I walk slowly. A kind of reverence for the acts of placement I see around me; and caution at the soft waterlogged ground beneath my feet. Caught between visible objects and what this softness conceals. 

 

Strange assemblages, human-sized, swing from the boughs of trees. Exhausted scraps of plastic, worn thin and emptied of whatever they once nursed are stretched membranes. Holding spaces between things. Everywhere, young saplings are embellished with twisted, water-spun grasses. There’s an ethnography of sorts, evident in sacred totems, mute warnings left by something that isn’t here yet. Something caught between the rise and fall. Something that doesn’t belong to either.

 

There’s a face. It hovers at the desire line, half-way-up the embankment. I dig my heels in, clutch at branches and come face-to-face with a Siren, trembling in the sound of passing trains. She looks to the other bank. Her eyes are fragile as soaked paper.  

 

The other bank is open and full of winter light. I realise everything’s flattened, levelled by floodwater. The dense forests of nettle and swarms of columbine have fallen. I wonder if the cat cemetery’s been washed away. Will anyone notice the absence of small headstones in a clearing where stolen bikes get dumped?

 

I cross to the other side. Boat people secure moorings as I slip off the canal path into this newly revealed landscape. There’s rush matting beneath my feet, pressed flat, river-woven, twisted and formed like the cross of St Bridget. Everywhere, things are bound together in curious union. Wooden pallets, carried-off from the stone cutter’s yard, self-assemble to form a Hay Wain for the post-pastoral. 

 

Strange shapes nod like flower heads. Hybrids. Compact collaborations of diverse materials. Some look more animal than plant. Larval? Insect? They’re caught on branches, fence posts, suspended in water; specimens caught in a moment between species. Archaic and temporary. Ritual forms waiting to disassemble. 

 

At the water’s edge the trees are hills of crosses, auto-monuments, laden with acts of intercession, tokens, trophies. Prayers from a cargo cult. A salvage ecology hangs above the river. Suspended. Keepsakes of things washed away. None of this will last.

 

Teams of cleaners descend. Office workers from a local Bank litter-pick votive offerings, community payback. There’s a leisurely feel as legs dangle off the slow-moving barge. Yellow hard-hats, slippery as Ladybird shells, laughter and talk of lunch. 

 

Later, pinkish nodules of Wolf’s Milk, small wounds, creep along the rotten wood of fallen limbs. Scattered like unpolished stones, parts of a whole, separate but unified. They move like the surface of the river; a thousand mirrors reflecting shattered space.